The True Cost of Vote Buying and Selling

Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history and Africana studies, discusses her book, Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy.

Friday, October 21, 2016

By Sacha Adorno

A few years ago, Mary Frances Berry, Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history and Africana studies, spent time in New Orleans for research. One day, while she was at City Hall to apply for a residential parking permit, a young man approached her with information he wanted to share.

The man was Greg Malveaux, former head of Louisiana’s Voter Fraud Division. The information was box after box of evidentiary materials, including wiretaps and affidavits, documenting rampant electoral fraud in Louisiana.      

“I told him I’d read one box, and if I wanted to read further I’d ask for more,” says Berry, recognizable to Malveaux as the former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a longtime advocate for social justice. Over time, she made it through everything. “I read Greg’s materials and knew they would make a very good story. I promised him I would write something.”

That something is Five Dollars and a Pork Chop Sandwich: Vote Buying and the Corruption of Democracy, Berry’s twelfth and most recent book. Published this year, it tells Malveaux’s story of futilely trying to fight entrenched voter manipulation in Louisiana and jumps the state’s borders to look at electoral abuses—from vote buying and hauling to absentee ballot abuse and more—nationwide.

“Politicians always talk about voter fraud,” she says. “But I hadn’t thought about it in state and local elections, and I really hadn’t thought about anything beyond the voter ID law. When I read Greg’s evidence, I recognized it as the type of corruption that happens all over the place—in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia, parishes across Louisiana, rural West Virginia, and even Nashville, where I’m from. It’s pervasive and insidious.” 

A form of voter suppression, these strategies, she says, “cut across party lines. Republicans, Democrats, and independents use any number of them.” 

The book shares specific examples of campaign operatives purchasing votes with “walk around” money, funds from campaign coffers earmarked to help increase voter turnout. For the relatively low cost of a beer, sandwich, or full tank of gas, campaigns buy a person’s vote. Once elected, politicians offer nothing in exchange. Explains Berry, “They’ve already given the voter something and don’t hold themselves accountable for more.”

As Malveaux learned, it’s hard to make headway against such misconduct. Many officials who can effect change benefit from a system that tolerates—or even encourages—vote buying. And vote sellers aren’t motivated to take action. The targets of unscrupulous get-out-the-vote strategies are mostly vulnerable elderly, low-income, and minority communities. Marginalized by social and economic circumstances, they already feel a sense of disenfranchisement. Gaining something material for voting becomes their only incentive to vote.     

“At first I wanted to denounce the people taking the money,” remembers Berry. “But then I realized these folks are disgusted and disenchanted. They don’t believe politicians work for them. If voters aren’t going to get better schools or new roads by voting, they might as well get a free lunch or extra cash.”

Where does it leave us then, when voters are frustrated, and politicians uninterested in changing illegal, if common, practices?

In her book, Berry offers different approaches to incentivizing voting that promote democracy and empower voters. And she encourages grassroots activists and organizations to help people understand the power their votes can have when cast of their own free will.

During a recent national book tour, Berry also spoke with people and organizations concerned about fraud perpetuated by campaigns and candidates. “A lot of folks are interested in doing something,” she says. “Many have suggested, and I agree, that we need a model voter process code, similar to the Model Penal Code, to clean up fraud. State legislatures can sign onto it.”

And if they don’t? “Boycott and vote!” says Berry. “Organizers on the ground can help people join together. With their collective votes, citizens can get politicians to do what they need them to do. If the politicians fail, they won’t get reelected.”